ATLANTA --An investigation by USA Today has exposed questionable tactics employed by investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The ATF goal is to get criminals off the street. The reality is some low level crooks and even some former decorated Army Rangers in Georgia have been caught up in it.
The method - undercover agents set up fictitious drug stash houses and try to entice criminals to take it down with the promise of drugs and money. Some say those tactics are needed, others say they may be unfairly putting people away for years.
While USA Today covered the national story, we teamed up with them to cover what happened here in Atlanta. In 2008, four U.S. army soldiers working at a Ranger training facility in Dahlonega were convinced to participate in one of those undercover operations.
They were Andre Stephan Champagne, David Ray White, Randy Spivey and Carlos Lopez. None had criminal backgrounds. All had proudly served their country.
"Hardened criminals? No," saidRobert McBurney. He prosecuted the case for the U.S. Attorney's Office and is now a sitting Judge with Fulton County Superior Court. "They served their country in ways far more than you or I have."
Spivey was awarded a Bronze Star and involved in the rescue of Jessica Lynch in Iraq in 2003. Lopez was with a unit that assisted in locating Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay. So how did these guys get caught up in an operation to raid a drug stash house?
Because they knew another Ranger, Sandeo Pablo Dyson, who was providing security at a local strip called Platinum 21. Dyson was being investigated by ATF agents for setting fire to rival strip club, Club Onyx. When ATF agents started to close in on Dyson's boss, a deal was cut to use Dyson to lure other soldiers for hire.
"It was sad. It wasn't one where when the case is over, there's this sense of satisfaction that you put the bad guys away," McBurney reflected.
McBurney understood the circumstances and all the charges were reduced, so instead of 15 years, the most time served was three.
Spivey was the only one who didn't go to jail receivingthree years probation pleading guilty to Misprision of a Felony, for trying to cover for his men, while they went on to so-called raid. The otherthree pled guilty to Conspiracy to Commit Robbery and have served their time.
We tried to talk to them, traveling to Alabama, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Only Champagne agreed to talk to us but not on camera.
"Champagne was super nice and so embarrassed about what he had done," McBurney said.
Champagne told 11AliveNewsthat he realized what he had done was wrong but that he wasn't a hardened criminal either. However, in the end they were soldiers offering their services for hire.
"These were active duty soldiers who 'talked the talk' in these meetings about, "don't worry about weapons, we can bring the weapons to these events," McBurney added, which is why the undercover operation went ahead and the charges were filed.